FFRF protests religious meetings at Mississippi high school

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is strenuously objecting to coercive and unconstitutional religious meetings regularly occurring in a Mississippi school district.

Employees at George County High School (located in Lucedale, Miss.) have evidently permitted a private group, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, to hold meetings during instructional time. The fellowship is apparently allowed to hold meetings once a month during a 40-minute period in the middle of the school day. The meetings take place in either the gym or the cafeteria and are organized and supervised by the school’s athletic director and disciplinary administrator, Matt Caldwell. Most disturbingly, some teachers reportedly require all students under their supervision to attend these monthly meetings.

FFRF is asking the George County School District not to permit its employees to promote religion to students or to allow a private group access to school facilities to hold religious meetings during the school day.

To quote the U.S. Supreme Court from the landmark Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) case, the district has an obligation under the law to make certain that “subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion.” The district must make certain that teachers in its schools are not unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters by compelling students to attend Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings during the school day, or by granting the fellowship special access to hold these meetings.

Participation in these religious events by school staff constitutes an additional constitutional violation. The Equal Access Act (EAA) requires that “employees or agents of the school or government are present at religious meetings only in a nonparticipatory capacity.” Additionally, it “prohibits school ‘sponsorship’ of any religious meetings . . . which means that school officials may not promote, lead, or participate in any such meeting.”

And public schools may not permit private groups to engage in religious instruction during the school day, FFRF reminds the school district.

“In the seminal case on this issue, McCollum v. Bd. of Educ., the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional a school practice of allowing religious teachers, employed by private religious groups, to teach students a weekly bible class,” FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover writes to George County School District Superintendent of Education Pam Touchard. “The court held, ‘Here not only are the state’s tax-supported public school buildings used for the dissemination of religious doctrines. The state also affords sectarian groups an invaluable aid in that it helps to provide pupils for their religious classes through use of the state’s compulsory public school machinery. This is not separation of church and state.’”

Other federal courts have delivered comparable judgments. In FFRF’s lawsuit against in-school religious instruction in Rhea County, Tenn., the court said, “This is not a close case. Since 1948, it has been very clear that the First Amendment does not permit the State to use its public school system to ‘aid any or all religious faiths or sects in the dissemination of their doctrines.’” The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reached the same conclusion when it was presented with religious instruction during the school day, as did a federal court in Mississippi when it addressed the issue.

“George County School District officials have permitted a situation that is appalling on many levels,” says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “Not only is a religious group being allowed to meet in a public school during school time, but teachers are compelling their students to attend these meetings.”

FFRF is requesting that the district instruct its employees to refrain from sponsoring or leading religious activities and not grant Fellowship of Christian Athletes special access to hold meetings during the school day.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nationwide state/church watchdog with 32,000 nonreligious members across the country, including in Mississippi.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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